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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

The Sack of Constantinople: 1204

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

The Crusade of 1204 – Domenico Tintoretto

Constantinople is one of history's most famous and remarkable cities. For centuries, it was a beacon of innovation, wealth, academia, commerce, glory and spiritual zeal. This naturally made it a prime target for ambitious conquerors or buccaneering raiders. Huns, Bulgars, Vikings, Arabs - myriads of foreign people attempted to conquer it. But they all failed. With towering walls, geographic advantage, and sophisticated fortifications, the city was universally known to be impenetrable. The city could only fall by natural disaster or ruinous treachery. In 1204, it fell by the latter.

Recommendation: Read "Life in Constantinople - the Ancient Metropolis" before this article.

The Great Schism and its political consequences

Note: The terms Byzantine and Eastern Roman are used interchangeably, but refer to the same Roman traditions present in Constantinople at the 13th century.

Constantinople's rulers were beset with enemies. As the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, it beheld more prestige than any other city. It was the Roman Empire that never died - and never would.

But in the 8th century, the Roman identity of the Empire was under challenge from Rome itself. Keen on restoring Roman prestige in the West (without submitting to Constantinople, that is), the Pope of Rome crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. This was an obvious insult to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople.

Meanwhile, the Pope of Rome became increasingly powerful in a manner that frustrated the other Patriarchs of the Church. He wielded more political influence than usual and insisted that he had superior ecclesial powers than the other Patriarchs. This was exasperated when the Pope affirmed a new theological "truth" without the consent of other Patriarchs and Archbishops. Traditionally, all theological debates needed the consent of all Patriarchates. The Pope, however, argued that he had divine right to be chief over all other Patriarchs.

Relations between the Western and Eastern churches worsened horribly. In 1057, as the Eastern Churches refused Papal authority, the Pope of Rome finally excommunicated them. The Eastern Christians retaliated by doing the same. Thus, the Great Schism of Christendom - spawning the Roman Catholic (West) and Orthodox (East) sectors of Christendom.

Map showing the division of reigning ecclesial orientations in 1057. (Note: NOT a political map).

The timing could not have been any worse. This was the age of the Crusades. The Crusades were initially intended to help the Byzantines in their fight against the invading Turks. However, due to the Schism, this alliance was in peril. Both sides viewed each other as prideful schismatics, eroding a sense of religious fraternity that would otherwise deter conflict.

Political and social unrest grew between the East and West. In Greece, Italian traders began to dominate the markets, creating socio-economic tensions between "Latins" and Greeks. As Italian principalities simultaneously expanded political influence over Greece, tensions reached a tipping point.

In 1182, the Greeks of Constantinople brawled with the Latin merchants, leading to the Massacre of the Latins as thousands were killed or beaten. This was an atrocity the Latins never forgot. Soon after, Catholic Norman knights attacked and sacked Thessalonica - Byzantium's second largest city. The union was failing.

Venice Seizes Advantage

In 1202, Pope Innocent III called for a Fourth Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Islamic forces. Such an expedition required a lot of funding and a powerful navy, so the Crusaders, largely German nobles, turned to Venice.

Venice had become one of the most lucrative principalities in the medieval world. With clever merchants and bankers, they had financed a rapid expansion of monopolies and maritime power. Seeing the advantages of joining a Crusade, they chartered out 500 ships to the Crusaders. But when Crusaders were unable to pay, Venice instead ordered them to assault and sack Zara on their behalf - a coastal Adriatic city that Venice desired for itself.

Hearing of such bloodshed, Pope Innocent III threatened to excommunicate Venice. Many Crusaders deserted, unwilling to spill more "Christian blood" for money. Thus, Venice soon found itself leading the Crusading endeavour alone. But having angered the Pope, they were committed to wage a heavy war on the Pope's enemies to salvage their papal relations.

In 1203, the perfect opportunity arose: Dogo Dandolo, the leader of Venice, met with Alexios IV Angelos, an exiled pretender to the throne of Byzantium. If the Crusaders could help him become Emperor, Alexios promised to pay off the Crusader debt to Venice plus a bonus of 200,000 silver marks, provide 10,000 footsoldiers, 5,000 knights and the entire Byzantine Navy to the Crusaders. Additionally: Alexios promised to place the entire Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope. The Venetians immediately accepted the offer, eager to become the Pope's champions over the "rebellious Orthodox" and end the Great Schism through Papal supremacy.

The First Assault, 1203

Notice the "Golden Horn". Here, the wall was thinnest.

Constantinople was manned by only 15,000 men at the time, and did not suspect any hostility from the Crusaders. When they suddenly besieged the city, the reigning Emperor Alexios III was shocked and ill prepared.

The Venetians quickly conquered the nearby city of Galata and used it as a springboard for further operations. It also enabled them to safely enter the Golden Horn, from where they could attack Constantinople's weakest wall (see map above). To succeed, they needed to place their vessels tightly beside the wall and mount in from deck.

After weeks of battle and tactical manoeuvres, the battle came to an eerie standstill that Emperor Alexios III could not stomach. Under a nervous breakdown, the Emperor loaded up on riches from the Imperial treasury and fled the city, leaving his troops alone. Abandoned by their Emperor, it did not take long before the Byzantines opened their gates for the pretender, Alexios IV, and proclaimed him Emperor.

Dressed in purple, Alexios IV had won the power he desired - but he soon felt the overwhelming weight of the crown. The war-torn, hostile Crusaders stood waiting in his Imperial palace expecting prompt payment, as promised. But Alexios IV's promises were groundless. He had overestimated the size of the treasury and was left with insufficient funds.

In a desperate attempt to appease the impatient Venetians, he made the mortal sacrilege of robbing Orthodox churches, melting their icons and Holy Relics to produce gold coins. Needless to say, this was a shocking sacrilege. The Christian populace was devastated, convinced that they had now lost the grace and protection of God.

"[The melting of icons] was the turning point towards the decline of the Roman state." -Nicetas Choniates, an eye-witnessing historian.

Riots broke out, especially between Greeks and Latins. A frenzied anti-Latin mob attacked the Latin quarter. The Crusaders joined in, and attacked a mosque, thereby also involving the Muslims. The city-wide violence triggered a great fire, as powerful winds drove the flames in all directions. The inferno completely destroyed 1/4th of the city, killing thousands of civilians and leaving 100,000 people homeless. Utter chaos.

Byzantine depiction of martyrs in a blaze.

In the disarray, a Greek mob killed Alexios IV, and the Varangians (Imperial Guard) appointed General Doukas as the new Emperor, taking the name Alexios V. Alexios V was the leader of the anti-Crusader faction in the political arena. It was therefore no surprise that he vehemently refused to pay the Crusaders a single coin.

The Venetians snapped. They immediately resumed their siege. Pope Innocent III demanded that they stopped immediately, but the Venetians - and even their Catholic clergy - ignored the order. Crusading bishops justified the siege by preaching that: "...the war was a righteous one, for the Greeks were traitors and murderers, and also disloyal, since they had murdered their rightful lord (Emperor Alexios IV)...the bishops said that, by the authority of God and in the name of the Pope, they would absolve all who attacked the Greeks....[the Greeks] were enemies of God." (quoted by Robert de Clari, a crusader).

The Second Assault, 1204

Initially, Alexios V defended the city well. Key to the defence were the Varangians. Though outnumbered, they proved to be the determining factor in each engagement. However, when the Venetians gained the wind on their side, they managed to sail their vessels tightly onto the weakest wall in the Golden Horn and keep it there for hours. In this defining moment, Alexios V took thousands of troops outside the city walls to bait the Crusaders away from the wall - but he made a gross miscalculation. It only further weakened the defences - and suddenly, the Crusaders had taken the walls.

Alexios V panicked and fled the city. The Varangians, distraught and furious, dispersed. Thus the Byzantine army disintegrated, and the Crusaders went amok.

Crusaders enter by Eugène Delacroix

The Sack of Constantinople

For three days, the Crusaders raped women, killed men and children, looted homes, palaces, markets and taverns. They even ransacked the treasures of the churches and monasteries, brutalizing monks and nuns. They stole holy relics, most notably the relics of Saint Mark, whom they regarded as their patron saint. Other stolen relics were a piece of the Virgin Mary's hair, a container of some of Christ's blood, the Shroud of Turin, pieces of the True Cross, Christ's purple robe, sandals and Crown of Thorns. The vault of Byzantine and ancient fine art was plundered, including ancient Roman columns, statues and mosaics. Private homes were breached and looted. Thousands of civilians were killed.

All bronze statues and monuments across the city - once proud landmarks of authority and strength - were smelted into coins. These were some of the world's most famous works of art - huge sculptures of heroes, gods and creatures from Greek mythology, often produced by the famous artisans of the ancient world (like Lysippos, Alexander the Great's personal artisan). One of the few bronze monuments that were spared was the Quadriga - four massive horses from the ancient Greek era that once prided the palace of Emperor Hadrian. The Quadriga was instead placed in Venice and re-named the Four Horses of St. Mark.

"Not even one person above Earth...would be able to count and tell the riches {plundered}, because, whoever narrated even the slightest about this wealth, about the beauty and precious things that were found in the monasteries, churches, in the palaces, and in the city, would appear a liar and no one would believe him." - Robert de Clari, crusader and eye-witness.

The Crusaders also breached into the sarcophagi of Constantine the Great, the city's founder, Empress Theodora, Emperor Justinian the Great, Emperor Heraclius and many others, plundering all the treasures they could find.

Once they entered the Hagia Sophia, they smashed the silver iconostasis and shared the pieces among themselves. According to contemporary sources, they proceeded to indulge in an alcoholic escapade on the altar, before smashing the altar itself and sending it on mules back to Venice. Constantinople was left completely desolate.

"No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united. Nobles wandered about ignominiously, those of venerable age in tears, the rich in poverty. Thus it was in the streets, on the corners, in the temple, in the dens, for no place remained unassailed or defended the suppliants. All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime. . Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, how great the distress!"

- Contemporary Niketas Choniates, eye-witness and historian.

The original Quadriga, now inside St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.

The Consequences

When Pope Innocent III heard of this tragedy, he was enraged and deeply ashamed. He reprimanded the Crusaders, excommunicating them indefinitely. In his epilogue of the event, the Pope lamented:

"How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs?...They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics."

As the Pope feared, relations between West and East were ruined. The hope for reunification was lost. It was regarded as a shameful betrayal that could never be absolved. The Great Schism was entrenched.

The Venetians proceeded by taking control over the former Byzantine Empire, founding the so-called Latin Empire of Greece. The surviving Byzantine nobility fled to Nicaea where they hopelessly fought off both Latins and Turks. However, 1261 the Byzantines managed to reclaim Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire. Needless to say, it was a mere shadow of its former self.

A wounded, betrayed nation, deeply distrustful of all its neighbours; emptied of wealth and riches, with a scarred populace and humiliated leaders - the Empire was broken. Nevertheless, with good faith and devotion to the Roman legacy, the Greeks restored the city to the best of their ability.

But as the threats of the Latins subsided from the West, a new threat grew in the East. The Turks were on the offensive. This time, the Byzantines were much weaker than before, and struggled to withstand the Islamic invasions. Abandoned by the West, Constantinople - the gateway to Europe - was left alone to face the full might of the Turkish armada.

"O City, City, eye of all cities, universal boast, supramundane wonder, nurse of churches, leader of the faith, guide of Orthodoxy, beloved topic of orations, the abode of every good thing! Oh City, that hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury! O City, consumed by fire..."

Niketas Choniates (13th century) laments the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders.

Further reading

Venice and the treasures of the Fourth Crusade:

Testimonies of contemporaries who witnessed the events of the Fourth Crusade:

The destruction caused by the fires in Constantinople:

Daily life in Constantinople pre-1204:

Genesis of a Nemesis: Venice Rising (on the rise of the Venetian Republic)

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